MIT Sloan Health Systems Initiative

Report on the twentieth annual SHBC student conference

On April 1, 2022, the annual MIT Sloan Healthcare and Bioinnovations Conference marked its twentieth year. A committee of 23 students designed and hosted the hybrid event whose theme was exploring new ways of transforming the patient journey by leveraging technology. Just like at past SHBC events, finalists for the Sloan Healthcare Innovations Prize (SHIP) pitched their ideas to the audience.  The mission of SHIP is to support early-stage healthcare startups by providing feedback from, and opportunity to network with, experienced industry professionals. First prize is an award of $20,000.

After holding the conference virtually last year, the conference organizers designed the event for both in-person and virtual attendance. Still, COVID was a frequent topic among the panelists. Liz Kellogg, Chief Marketing Officer at Buoy Health spoke about how the pandemic accelerated the company’s growth and how they were able to pivot to address consumers with COVID symptoms. Buoy Health is an AI-enabled digital platform where consumers enter their symptoms and get possible explanations and next steps that make sense for that particular consumer’s financial circumstances.  Buoy Health offers follow-up by text if the consumer opts in for that service, as well as communities for consumers to chat with those similarly afflicted.

Buoy Health noticed an uptick in users inquiring about COVID-related symptoms. They rewrote their symptom checker to include COVID-19 as a possible diagnosis. The algorithm worked so well that the company sold their screening to the states of Massachusetts and Virginia. Cigna and Express Scripts just started working with Buoy Health to provide an early intervention COVID screening tool.

COVID-19 also figured prominently during the panel on Investing in the Social Determinants of Health. That session kicked off with moderator Julia Berenson, Technical Officer, Equity and Health in the SDOH Department at the World Health Organization, commenting that the pandemic magnified and created new health inequities with White Americans dying at about half the rate of other groups. While SDOH are often seen as something that non-profits and governments address, Berenson said, for-profit companies have a part to play in addressing these issues.

One of the panelists, Chemu Langat, Vice President of Quality and Regulatory Affairs at Best Buy Health, spoke about the trend toward more health technology in the home that was accelerated by the pandemic. Telemedicine became more mainstream than before with many patients seeing their clinicians over video chat.  Best Buy is a consumer technology company and knows something about setting up systems in homes. The company’s health division focusses on the home as the center of care and offers technology, tech help, and health and social care to patients at home. Seventy percent of the population in the United States lives within 10 miles of a Best Buy or Best Buy distribution center, Langat commented. Best Buy’s Geek Squad is already a known trusted in-home tech support service, she added. Some of those calls can be diverted to address health technology. The goal is to help people manage chronic conditions as well as to address one-time events.

Betty Yen, Head of Partnerships at Lyft Health, also spoke about a corporation adapting their core offering to provide healthcare services. Lyft Health has a dedicated app for people to request transportation to healthcare appointments.  There were already companies that provide this service, but they tend to eat up several hours of a patient’s time. Often, Yen commented, a patient would choose not to go to an appointment rather than deal with an inefficient system. Right now, government is one of the largest payers for transportation. However, Yen pointed out, governments need to be educated about what Lyft can do. There are policies in place that require a healthcare transport vehicle to have on board the same items as an ambulance. These policies need to be changed for instances such as taking someone to a regular, non-urgent appointment.

Esther Farkas, Chief Strategy Officer at Unite Us, was glad to see that other companies have joined them in addressing social determinants of health. Unite Us was founded in 2013 with the mission to connect health and social care. Farkas described Unite Us as a software company. They build tech within a community to improve health through a referral process not only to traditional healthcare providers, but also to food banks, housing providers and other social need organizations. In North Carolina, Medicaid has expanded the services and goods they cover using the Unite Us platform. The health plan covers healthcare, of course, as well as food, transportation, making a home ADA compliant if needed, removing mold from a home to improve health and perhaps to keep people from getting sick in the first place.

Sloan Healthcare Innovations Prize

Two finalists presented their start-up companies to the audience. Jo-Hannah Yeo, co-founder and CEO of Intune, presented the company’s platform for women over 50 years old. Intune, “like a sommelier for personal fitness”, offers personalized workouts, holistic exercise plans and a community of women, personal trainers, and health experts.

The winner of the $20,000 prize, SanaHeal, markets a product developed by MIT researchers in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Compared to “surgical duct tape”, the company’s product   addresses the challenge of surgical bleeding. Up to 68% of surgical procedures have major bleeding events despite the use of hemostats, the current solution. Hyunwoo Yuk, MIT Research Scientist and Chief Technology Officer presented the company’s innovation that both costs far less and is more effective than current material.

This year’s conference focused on technology, yet most speakers also touched on issues of health equity, social determinants of health and how the pandemic accelerated their company’s growth or offered new opportunities. The combination of technology, access to healthcare and providing for social needs made for talks that touched on the most pressing and timely challenges.